El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events have profound consequences for the dynamics of terrestrial ecosystems. Since increased climate variability is expected to favour the invasive success of exotic species, we conducted a field experiment to study the effects that simulated rainy ENSO events in combination with herbivores and shade have on the composition of a semiarid herbaceous community in north-central Chile. We hypothesized that water pulses, such as those associated with rainy ENSO events could trigger significant changes in the relative abundance of exotic and native herbaceous species. Specifically, we predicted an increase in native grasses and a reduction in the abundance of exotic species, especially prostrate forbs, if water pulses were combined with reduced herbivory. We found that herbivory by small mammals, especially introduced European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and hares (Lepus europaeus), have an overwhelming effect on species abundance and composition in this semiarid herbaceous community. Herbivore exclusion produced an overall increase in herb density and biomass mostly due to the extraordinary growth of tall native grasses (especially Bromus berterianus) that outcompeted small prostrate forbs (both native and exotic ones), and small exotic grasses (Koeleria pleoides, Schismus arabicus). Our results suggest that it might be possible to enhance the recovery of native grasses by applying efficient herbivore control during rainy years such as those associated with ENSO events although a negative consequence would be the loss of small native forbs, which greatly contribute to the richness of herbaceous communities in semiarid ecosystems.
- community structure
- annual forbs